LONELY NIGHTS & OTHER STORIES created by Leah Cherniak, Martha Ross, Oliver Dennis, Maggie Huculak, Michael Simpson and Ker Wells, directed by Cherniak. Presented by Theatre Columbus in association with the Factory Theatre at the Factory (125 Bathurst). Opens tonight (June 7) and runs to July 1, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $20-$26, Sunday pwyc-$20. 416-504-9971.
no one likes to admit that they're lonely. But whether you're crying over a Friday-night episode of Providence, perusing the personals or looking at your lifelong partner and wondering who the hell they are, we all experience an occasional lonesome longing, an ache of absence.
But can you make great comic theatre out of it?
The folks at Theatre Columbus believe they can. Lonely Nights & Other Stories, the new piece from the creators of The Betrayal and The Anger In Ernest And Ernestine, puts the sad subject under their fine-tuned microscope.
"At first I didn't think the idea would work dramatically," says Martha Ross, co-artistic director of Theatre Columbus.
We're sitting alone in a small foyer in the Factory Theatre, waiting for another cast member to arrive. Getting to know each other. Slightly awkward. Nervous. Just a tape recorder between us.
"Nothing happens when you're lonely," she continues, looking out the window. "When I get lonely, it quickly turns to depression, and then I don't move, think or do anything. I just stare into space. And that's not very dramatic. Or comic."
In fact, when the initial collective team first gathered around a table to free-associate on the play's subject -- a common first step in their creation process -- they all blithely claimed that they didn't get lonely much. They had families of their own, partners, children, friends. What was there to be lonely about?
"Three years later, we all feel ripped apart and exposed," says Ross. "We've realized that we do know that feeling, and it's horrible."
Actor Ker Wells arrives, and the energy in the room changes. He's new to the Theatre Columbus experience. The others -- Ross, director Leah Cherniak, and performers Maggie Huculak, Oliver Dennis and Michael Simpson -- helped create The Betrayal, the 1998 Chalmers Award-winning play that explored the subject of infidelity. Some of them have worked together for 20 years. All of them are parents. Wells is younger, single and childless.
"There's probably nothing my peers and friends talk about more than relationships, finding someone, and the new reality of dating and marriage," he says, settling into the foyer. "Those conversations are ultimately about loneliness."
As the token single in the troupe, Wells has the most direct current access to the dating scene. One of his contributions to the show is the fast-talking charmer Vince Cardo, a guy with three cellphones who answers a personal ad.
"Before Ker arrived, Leah tried to get us all to improvise about the weirdness of a first date, or writing a classified ad," says Ross, who's grateful for Wells's presence. "And we were all really bad at it."
But singletons aren't the only lonely souls in the play. Even if you're in a family, you can feel emotionally adrift. Take Ross's character of Judy Tuesday, a mother whose daughter is leaving home to raise bees in Africa.
"Discovering the pain and loss in Judy's life was a revelation," says Ross, who early in the process emphasized the character's clown-like nature.
"The thing about loneliness," she continues, "is that it takes you back to childhood in a big, bad way. My eight-year-old daughter talks about how lonely she is at recess because no one wants to play with her. I'm dealing with the same feelings in the show."
As the dozen-plus characters try to cope, the design and music mirror the theme. John Millard's sounds evoke a carnival -- "because when you're lonely you feel like a freak," quips Ross.
And Sue LePage's set is littered with big holes. Characters have to jump over them while also tying to protect themselves from the rain, which has been coming down for 40 days and 40 nights.
The holes are an obvious symbol of loss or absence, but Wells points out that they have political connotations, too.
"I think these are lonely times, not least because of the political slide toward a more ruthless, fraying-social-safety-net society," he says.
"The holes in the city address the decay of the physical infrastructure, which echoes what a lot of us, certainly a lot of artists, feel -- that things are becoming less generous, less inclusive."